The press conference that produced this comment took place while I was on a plane headed to Dallas, but it didn’t take long for anyone who missed it to catch up to the gaffe. I tweeted out shortly afterward:
Had a bad dream while napping on the plane. Dreamt the leader of the free world shrugged about ISIS & said "We got nothing." Silly, huh?
— Ed Morrissey (@EdMorrissey) August 28, 2014
The “no strategy” comment from Barack Obama has turned into a nightmare from the White House. Unlike the “leading from behind” quip, which was given to Ryan Lizza by an anonymous staffer, this statement came straight from Obama himself. Despite the efforts of Josh Earnest to spin it afterward, the comment has reverberated, in part because it confirms what many people already think of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. It’s a Kinsleyan gaffe, as Aaron Blake writes today at the Washington Post:
As with all gaffes, the worst ones are the ones that confirm people’s pre-existing suspicions or fit into an easy narrative. That’s why “47 percent” stung Mitt Romney so much, and its why “don’t have a strategy” hurts Obama today.
Polls have increasingly shown that Americans view Obama as a weak commander in chief without much direction or heft t0 his foreign policy. The latest is a Pew Research Center survey, released shortly before Obama’s errant statement Thursday, that showed 54 percent of Americans say he’s “not tough enough” when it comes to foreign policy and national security.
Just 36 percent said Obama has shown about the right amount of toughness. Mind you, this is after he launched airstrikes in Iraq.
Blake adds in a chart of Pew polling that shows growing frustration with the lack of toughness at the White House:
House Intelligence chair Mike Rogers was aghast:
“It was an odd press conference at the very best, but to have a press conference to say we don’t have a strategy was really shocking given the severity of the threat. That’s what’s so concerning to me,” Rogers (R-Mich.) told Wolf Blitzer on CNN. …
Blizter said White House aides have clarified Obama’s remarks to say the president meant a strategy specifically targeting ISIL in Syria, before asking Rogers if he was “happy with that.”
“Well, I’m not OK with it, and it just confirmed what we’ve been talking about really for almost two years: There has been no real strategy,” the congressman said. “I mean this just tells you how far we have to go and I’m just not sure the severity of the problem has really sunk in to the administration just yet. Clearly, that’s what that told me today.”
Rogers said Obama “absolutely” should confer with defense officials about options, but said that should’ve happened earlier.
“We are so far along into this, this is not like this happened last week or a few days ago,” Rogers said. “This is so frustrating that with all of this going on, with certainly all of the intelligence showing us the problems that are there, the president says, ‘I want a strategy how to deal with this by the end of the week.’ It just tells you that, apparently, we’re not taking this seriously for some length of time. This should already be done.”
Josh Gerstein noted that the “inartful phrase” has the White House playing defense:
The president’s aim was clearly to defuse building expectations that U.S. military strikes in Syria were imminent as part of a broadening drive to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But his awkward choice of words to describe a policymaking process still in midstream seems likely to haunt him for some time.
The inartful phrase quickly went viral among right-leaning media outlets and Republican figures, pushing the White House into damage control mode. White House aides immediately went online and on TV to argue that he was simply pointing out that he had yet to settle on new military options for a broader assault on ISIL that has already led to more than 100 airstrikes on the group’s positions in Iraq. …
Thursday’s messy news conference capped off a month of difficult public statements from Obama on foreign policy issues. Back on Aug. 7, he made a brief prime-time appearance to announce bombing strikes against ISIL in Iraq, including some aimed at freeing religious minorities besieged on a mountain. It’s not clear in retrospect whether tens of thousands of Yazidi sect members were in fact trapped there or a much smaller number. U.S. official say some didn’t want to leave.
He made five more public statements on ISIL in the ensuing days, including a couple from Martha’s Vineyard, where he was vacationing. The last statement was a harsh condemnation of the Islamic group for its beheading of American journalist James Foley. Obama went directly from that statement to a round of golf, drawing criticism for insensitivity.
The impact and the danger of the no-strategy remark could be exacerbated by earlier Obama comments in which he seemed to dramatically underestimate the ISIL threat.
For weeks, White House aides have been fielding questions about the president’s comments to The New Yorker early this year suggesting that the group was a junior varsity team not as threatening as Al Qaeda. “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” he told the magazine.
ABC called this “a stark admission,” especially in the context of the year-long growth of ISIS. Martha Raddatz also points out the inconvenient contradiction between Obama and his Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who called ISIS an imminent threat last week:
The reason why this gaffe does so much damage is because it’s accurate. Josh Earnest may have tried arguing that “no strategy” really means “we totally have a strategy, but it’s obvious that the White House has nothing but tactical reactions on its collective mind. The President seems not to have heard Hagel’s assessment last week, as his remarks yesterday contradicted them. It’s become beyond clear that ISIS will continue its genocidal activities until stopped, and yet the message from Obama yesterday was basically to tell people to be patient while he catches up on the news. On top of that, we have the leader of the free world almost literally telling the press that he’s got no plan to deal with the situation, which can’t help but boost the morale of ISIS and encourage others to join them.
This is once again a press conference for which the White House failed to prepare, and had no message to deliver. Perhaps they’re worried about transparency, but when it comes to the unpreparedness of this administration to deal with a crisis, sometimes a little opacity can be … strategic.